Do You Strive to be a Brilliant Writer, or Good Enough?

All writers are bipolar—at least all the ones I know. We are a crazy mixture of egotistical, manic, single-minded, optimistic on the one hand and sensitive, catastrophizing, scattered and pessimistic on the other. How do we live and produce work in a world filled with such extremes?

Every step of the process toward publication for writers is fraught with potholes that can potentially blow our tires. Equally, every step promises to build to a run and then we’re off, we’re speeding along, we’ve done it—we are indeed the writer god we always knew we were destined to be.

What about the beginning of the writing journey? In our up moments, we know our novel will be worthy, it will stun readers and reviewers, it will make our parents proud. We may only have the concept, and in our minds it’s brilliant.

But in our down moments, we know with equal certitude that we will fail. Miserably. We will be pedantic. No one will understand what we’re getting at. Our characters will be considered dull and stupid. Our finely wrought scenes will be thought clunky or even worse, laughable.

In those moments, aren’t you just a little tempted by the idea of being “good enough” rather than brilliant? There are millions of good enough books out there that people love. Do we always have to strive for brilliance?

When you read a great book, do you feel buoyed and hopeful? Or do you feel dispirited and intimidated? This is where the magic of denial and delusion and diligence all work together to keep us tethered to our computers. We find the tiny spark of hope deep inside us and we keep going.

I’ve moved offices six times since I started writing seriously, and each time I lug my favorite books with me. I keep them close for moments when I need inspiration, and to remind myself that brilliance comes in many different forms.

I still flip fondly through my yellowed high school copy of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This one sentence is scribbled on the back cover: “…l’ennui, araignee silencieuse, filait sa toile dans l’ombre a tous les coins de son coeur.” I can’t do the language justice by translating, but the choice of words suggests the image of a spider—the insidious, invasive spider of boredom (those words are not actually used, merely suggested)—stuck with me. How much you can convey with the right word choice!

When I read Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, I’m reminded to keep it real and close. To give the mundane and miniscule the opportunity to become monumental. Rose Tremain’s stunning, muscular novel about gold mining in New Zealand, The Colour, had me stalking her online like a besotted fan (I found virtually nothing, by the way). For weeks afterwards I was dreaming about the characters and the story. Need guidance on writing historical fiction? Read The Colour.

Nick Hornby’s Speaking With the Angel is all about voice. Oh the delectable beauty of an author’s inflections, his or her characters, the unique and differentiated cadences that all work to different effect to create such a symphony. (I could get all flowery about it…) Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, is a masterful primer on point-of-view. The Pleasing Hour, by Lily King, reminds me of the goal of effortless yet impactful characterization.

I could go on and on about the books I turn to—especially some of the newer ones from the past five years—but my point is this: We must not allow ourselves to be cowed by the idea of brilliance. Though we may seek to write brilliant books, like those precious favorites that changed our lives, sometimes it’s better to strive to be good enough instead.

Sometimes we need to trick our frantic, hypersensitive brains into just getting on with it. Just trying. Doing it and seeing what happens. We might discover our own brilliance along the way.

Projectile Vomit, The X-Factor and Writing

Last week a 9th grader climbed up on the elevated stage at my daughter’s school to sing an Adele song in front of hundreds of fellow students.  His shoulders and hands trembled with nerves. As he began to sing, his voice cracked. Kids in the audience felt his anxiety and cast glances at each other.

And then he projectile vomited.

The boy wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and kept going. While he sang his heart out, the kids in the front seats wiped off their shirts.

At the end, he got a standing ovation.

JUST HOW BADLY DO WE WANT IT?

As human beings we can relate to the fear of putting ourselves out there to be judged, and we are awed and humbled when we see someone who carries on in spite of failures. No one can remain neutral when faced with a person who is so committed to doing the best they possibly can that they keep going even under the most humiliating circumstances.

As writers, I think we can identify with this. When we create, the magic of writing and the challenge of living up to our own crazy-high standards fuels the fire of our self-expression.

But then comes the big reveal. We take our work out into the world, exposing ourselves to others’ opinions—and we have to learn to thrive or survive.

Why is it that when I watch the X-factor, I get a lump in my throat every time? It’s not the manufactured drama, it’s the raw desire. I watch these people sing their hearts out and I am awed by the effort. They want it so badly.

A WRITER”S COURAGE

Being a writer is a fascinating and complicated mix of private and public. We do it because there’s something about the act of creation that is immensely satisfying. Yet that’s not quite enough for most of us: We want to share this with an audience. We yearn for appreciation and acknowledgment, not only for our efforts but for our skill.

Sometimes we get that appreciation, and it feels great. We sign a book deal, or we make our own path to finding an audience. When it works, it’s the best: Connecting with readers is our gift. Maybe we win a prize, or are awarded a residency, or perhaps we kill it during a workshop and we go home floating on clouds.

Other times, we are faced with indifference or nervous side glances. That hurts even more than outright rejection. And sometimes we have to deal with cruelty—nasty reviews or vengeful editors.

Often we have to accept that our very best effort was simply not good enough. It hurts. Badly.

Can we find it in ourselves to wipe ourselves clean and carry on?

I know that for me, when I see a writer or a singer or anybody who takes the risk of putting themselves out there, I want to give them a standing ovation for the intensity of their effort. They try, they fail, they forge ahead and they try again.

They might vomit, or crash and burn on live TV, or write a story that fails to soar… and still they have my respect for the heart they have put into it.

May the Force be with you,

Katrin